Red Cross president went to mat for Israel

WASHINGTON, Oct. 30 (JTA) — Israel’s exclusion from the global Red Cross organization appears to have been the pivotal factor in the resignation of the head of the American Red Cross.

Dr. Bernadine Healy said last Friday that she had been forced out of her job over policy differences with her board. In particular, she noted her unpopular decision to withhold American Red Cross dues from the International Committee of the Red Cross to protest the group’s refusal to give full membership to Magen David Adom, the Israeli relief group.

Contrary to reports, Healy’s ouster had very little to do with the issue of how to use funds collected for the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to an official at the American Red Cross.

“It’s just not the case,” the official said.

Healy had taken the lead on what she termed a “controversial but principled stand” supporting Israel’s demand for membership in the international organization. Healy advocated withholding American Red Cross dues to the international group until the Israeli branch was included. Magen David Adom currently has only observer status.

The American Red Cross has so far withheld two years of dues — approximately $10-12 million — as well as voluntary contributions to the international group.

Israel’s humanitarian relief movement has been barred from the Red Cross movement, which allows only the red cross and, in Muslim countries, the red crescent. Israel insists on keeping its red Star of David.

Israel’s exclusion has been a long-standing point of contention between the American Red Cross and the international bodies.

The exclusion generally is attributed to intense lobbying against Israel from Arab and Muslim members of the International Red Cross. Officially, the reason given is that allowing the Star of David might encourage other groups to press for inclusion of their emblems as well.

Alluding to her difficulties on this issue with the board of governors, Healy said “reasonable people have differed with me on this and certain other matters, but this is an area of deep principle for me not easily compromised.”

Earlier this month the board tried to reverse course and pay its back dues to the international body, even passing a resolution to do so, the American Red Cross official told JTA. Healy refused to back down, however.

In her resignation speech, she said, “the policy is now up for grabs.”

The following day, however, the American Red Cross voted to keep current policy, passing a resolution affirming its commitment to Magen David Adom’s struggle.

“It is one of our top international policy priorities,” said Leslie VanSant, a spokesperson with the American Red Cross.

It remains to be seen how aggressively the American Red Cross will pursue the issue.

Healy’s resignation may help solidify American Red Cross support for Magen David Adom, the official said, but she remains doubtful about the Israeli group’s ultimate prospects of joining the world body.

“I’m not terribly optimistic,” the official said.

When she began her tenure, Healy said the Star of David emblem should be recognized by the International Red Cross. The exclusion of the Israelis is “a betrayal of the sacred principles of this movement” and “cannot be tolerated any longer,” she said.

Lawrence Eagleburger, a former U.S. secretary of state, said Healy had asked his advice in forcing the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent to change policy toward Israel.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post on Tuesday, Eagleburger wrote that Healy was forced out of office not because of anything related to the events of Sept. 11, but because “she dared to try to right a wrong — the wrong of denying a sovereign nation equality because of its ethnicity.”

The Israeli relief agency’s general director, Avi Zohar, credited Healy with “opening the door” on the issue and generating much support in the last two years. American Red Cross chapters have been strengthening their connections with Magen David Adom, Zohar said, and the American Red Cross will continue its support.

“Because it is just, I think they will put pressure in the same way,” he said.

Zohar believes his group will be granted full membership in the next year or two.

Magen David Adom’s inclusion has support from all major Jewish organizations, and U.S. congressional support reached a high point this year. Fifty-three U.S. senators signed letters in August to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Red Cross officials, urging the International Red Cross to grant full and immediate acceptance to Magen David Adom.

Gary Kenzer, the executive director of the U.S. branch of Magen David Adom, said that Healy’s resignation is of concern but does not signal the end of American Red Cross support.

“The issue is not dead in the water,” he said.

Last year, representatives from Israel and the American Red Cross held talks in Geneva and discussed proposals to incorporate Magen David Adom’s red Star of David into a neutral emblem. Discussions on alternatives are still under way.

The issue of the emblem has blocked Magen David Adom’s admission to the International Red Cross since 1949. According to Magen David Adom, it has met all of the other criteria required to join the international organization.

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